The story of Ivan Pillay, who went from an enemy of the apartheid state to enemy of the State Capture brigade under Jacob Zuma, is told by his partner, Evelyn Groenink, whom he met in October 1990, in Lusaka, Zambia. Pillay, coordinator of Operation Vula, was then still a fugitive from the apartheid regime. Even though Nelson Mandela had been freed and the ANC unbanned, underground comrades were on the run; some had been arrested and some who disappeared were later found murdered.
The book narrates how, as the relationship between the two grows, the couple live through a first period still filled with Security Police shenanigans and Inkatha massacres while simultaneously all-party negotiations take place in CODESA, the Conference for a Democratic South Africa. A little later, election euphoria coincides with the first year of their first baby daughter.
Then, tragically, a devastating AIDS epidemic follows, together with the rise of a denialist and paranoid new leader: Thabo Mbeki. Living under a newly sycophantic ruling party and among thousands of deaths, old ideals start to fray. Still, as old friends and comrades fade, some get into parliament, some die and some remain, the couple, with now two small daughters, try to be new South African citizens in a slowly diversifying community. But why is the former Model C school in their area so bad at reaching out to township kids; why is the education department so absent and why is the ANC branch, domain of former municipal courier, now Chairman Eddy, and his flock of domestic workers, so uninterested in the community?
The South African Revenue Service provides a platform where old and new idealists regroup to try and build a developmental state: one that will take tax moneys from everyone according to earning ability, and build a new country for everyone according to need. Sadly, politicians start to fight out rivalries through state institutions. This incipient scourge under the Mbeki government then ends in outright disaster under Jacob Zuma.
Now called ‘rogue’, a smear campaign associates Ivan and other hardworking civil servants with ‘white monopoly capital’ and even apartheid. In a tragic rewriting of history, courageous state officials become the ‘enemy’ to be purged, while a Radical Economic Transformation Brigade, of no noteworthy accomplishment, prances around as the true heirs of South Africa’s freedom struggle.
In 2020, Ivan and those around him still carry on: opposing corruption, hoping still to turn old ideals into good public administration and governance, and connecting with others who stand against the destructive forces of greed and incompetence. The question remains the same as always: are we now finally going to build this new South Africa?
The Unlikely Mr Rogue will be in bookstores soon.